Fall is a time when iced tea gives way to apple cider, and school buses start to nudge out ice cream trucks on neighborhood streets. With dusk coming on earlier and earlier, there’s a new crispness to the air (at least there should be… it’s supposed to be 90 degrees in Minneapolis today!).
In honor of the new season, let me provide a listening guide to some of my favorite autumn-themed works of classical music, listed alphabetically by composer. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments. Enjoy!
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Britten: Cello Suite No. 3, “Autumn.” A short (very short) prelude if you will—a Russian melody that became part of Britten’s Third Cello Suite, Op. 87.
Delius: “Autumn,” from North Country Sketches. Delius wrote drop-dead gorgeous music, which far too often is overlooked. The North Country Sketches is one of his few purely orchestral scores to evoke the landscape of England; it specifically refers to the Yorkshire Moors around Delius’s birthplace where he and his sister often took long walks.
Glazunov: “Autumn,” from The Seasons. This allegorical ballet premiered in St. Petersburg in 1900. It was one of the last great ballet scores written in the tradition of Tchaikovsky; a few years later Stravinsky would create a new tradition based in Paris. The “Bacchanal” that opens the work, and reappears several times thereafter, seems a direct ancestor of John Williams’ score for Star Wars.
Grieg: In Autumn. The genesis of In Autumn is, for me, hilarious. In 1865 Grieg spent the autumn in Rome, which inspired him to compose this overture. Upon returning home, he showed the work to composer Niels Gade for review. Gade hated it. He immediately wrote to Grieg, saying, “This is trash, Grieg; go home and write something better.” But as Grieg later wrote, “Shortly thereafter, however, I had my unexpected revenge. I arranged the overture for piano duet and sent it to Stockholm where, just then, the Academy of Music had announced a prize contest for best overture. I was awarded the prize by the judges, of which Gade was one. He must have forgotten the piece in the intervening time, or have been in a bad temper the day I showed it to him.”
Haydn: “Autumn,” from The Seasons. Buoyed by the success of his oratorio, The Creation, Haydn set to work on another large-scale choral work: The Seasons. The plot was based on a poem of the same name by James Thompson and is relatively thin… especially compared with that of The Creation; that said, many critics point out that musically it is the stronger work. Michael Steinberg, for example, argued that that the work “ensure[s] Haydn’s premiere place with Titian, Michelangelo and Turner, Mann and Goethe, Verdi and Stravinsky, as one of the rare artists to whom old age brings the gift of ever bolder invention.”
Mahler: “The Lonely One in Autumn,” from The Song of the Earth. The year 1907 was a tough one for Mahler. In rapid succession he lost his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera due to political infighting and anti-Semitism. Shortly thereafter he lost his daughter Maria to scarlet fever, and learned of a congenital heart defect that would shorten his life. He wrote, “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn.” The next year he came across Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte, a German translation of ancient Chinese poetry. He was profoundly moved by the poems’ discussion of transience and fate; he quickly adapted seven of the selections to create the orchestral song cycle, The Song of the Earth. The second movement, “The Lonely One in Autumn,” perfectly captures the season’s sense of melancholy:
Autumn fog creeps bluishly over the lake.
Every blade of grass stands frosted.
As though an artist had jade-dust
over the fine flowers strewn.
The sweet fragrance of flower has passed;
A cold wind bows their stems low.
Soon will the wilted, golden petals
of lotus flowers upon the water float.
My heart is tired. My little lamp
expires with a crackle, minding me to sleep.
I come to you, trusted resting place.
Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment!
I weep often in my loneliness.
Autumn in my heart lingers too long.
Sun of love, will you no longer shine
to gently dry up my bitter tears?
Piazolla: “Buenos Aires Autumn,” from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. This work is a marvelous fusion of musical styles, bringing together themes from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the tango music of Piazolla’s native Buenos Aires. The result is a vibrant, rhythmic reconceptualization of Vivaldi’s classic.
Rautavarra: Autumn Gardens. This work captures the elusive character of autumn brilliantly, managing to shift from being ethereal to dense in short order. Although considered a tone poem, its gently contrasting three movements would almost seem to qualify it as a symphony in its own right. The composer writes, “I have often compared composing to gardening. In both processes, one observes and controls organic growth rather than constructing or assembling existing components and elements. I would also like to think that my compositions are rather like ‘English gardens,’ freely growing and organic, as opposed to those that are pruned to geometric precision and severity.” Overall the work was inspired by an image taken from T. S. Elliot: “late roses filled with early snow.”
Sibelius: Höstkväll (“Autumn Evening”). In the wake of his First Symphony, Sibelius turned to a very different kind of project—this song for mezzo-soprano based on a Swedish poem by Viktor Rydberg. It is the embodiment of a Nordic autumn, depicting the moment the sun begins to set behind gathering storm clouds. As is often the case in Sibelius’s works, the focus is on the dramatic grandeur of nature itself; humankind is only an insignificant observer. The work is chilling, yet still has an underlay of warmth and wonder.
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons. These twelve character pieces for solo piano (which might more logically be called, “The Months”) were composed in the wake of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Several movements took on a life of their own, with “November” being a favorite encore of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Russian publisher Nikolay Bernard provided poetic epigraphs for each movement. The lines accompanying “October” are particularly poignant: “Autumn, our poor garden is all falling down, the yellowed leaves are flying in the wind.” –Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Vaughan Williams: “Autumn,” from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. Ralph Vaughan Williams had a deep and abiding love of British folk songs, which provided an endless source of inspiration for his compositions. His Folk Songs of the Four Seasons developed naturally from this love—it is, in effect, a folk song cantata for women’s voices. As many composers before him realized, the changing of the seasons provided a wonderful, varied framing device for the songs. In describing the work, he wrote: “The subject of our folk-songs, whether they deal with romance, tragedy, conviviality or loyalty, have a background of nature and its seasons.” The autumn section features three folk songs tied to the harvest: John Barleycorn, The Unquiet Grave, and An Acre of Land.
Vivaldi: “Autumn,” from The Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s ever-present work is notable as one of the earliest attempts at what we would now call program music—music with a specific narrative in mind, or music that sets out to evoke a specific idea or object. To this end, Vivaldi included sonnets with each movement that would set the mood for the season in question. He also attempted to reproduce naturalistic sounds in musical form, included the crackling ice and barking of dogs. The “autumn” section highlights celebrations around the harvest, including a sleepy movement bringing to mind peasants who have had a bit too much to drink. The movement ends with a hunt, which includes depictions of musket fire and the braying of dogs.
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Enjoy the season!